High-sugar perennial ryegrasses are said to supply more energy to the rumen, converting more of the grass protein to meat and milk.

High-sugar grasses were developed 20 years ago by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) in Wales to make more efficient use of limited farmland. European research by IGER has shown that livestock grazing on grasses with high water-soluble carbohydrate content produce more milk, gain more weight and excrete less nitrogen.

So far the evidence for U.S. producers is mostly anecdotal.

Last fall, Grassland Oregon took over U.S. distribution of SucraSeed, a line of high-sugar ryegrass, including three IGER varieties. The Keizer, OR, company grows the seed in the Pacific Northwest.

“We're really at the beginning of gathering data in the U.S.,” says Jerry Hall, Grassland Oregon's general manager and research director.

Hall estimates that about 10,000 acres have been planted to the grasses. Field trials are under way in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Oregon State University has done yield and quality studies comparing Grassland Oregon's high-sugar varieties to Linn perennial ryegrass.

“We learned that cattle really like the high-sugar grasses,” says Mike Gamroth, Oregon State extension dairy specialist. “All the cows ate remarkably, but the cows on the high-sugar grass had a higher intake.”

The study showed no significant difference in milk production, a finding Gamroth does not consider definitive at this point. Researchers also looked at silage production and found that the high-sugar grasses reached a lower pH and had more lactic acid.

“They seemed to get a more effective fermentation, which generally means a better preservation of material,” Gamroth says.

He's considering a feeding trial with high-sugar ryegrass hay, something no one has yet studied.

Doo-Hong Min of Michigan State University's Upper Peninsula Experiment Station hosted a pasture walk for Michigan producers last June. His plots of high-sugar and regular perennial ryegrasses with alfalfa and kura clover were planted in 2006. He's looking at winter survival, forage yield and quality, botanical composition and stand persistence. He cautions that results are very preliminary at this point.

“Farmers showed a strong interest in high-sugar perennial ryegrass,” says Min. “Their major concerns were winter survival in cold climatic conditions. Winter survival of high-sugar perennial ryegrass was more than 95% the first year. If high-sugar grass can survive the second winter, there is potential to use this high-quality forage for dairy and livestock production.”

One of the first U.S. dairy operators to try high-sugar ryegrass has been pleased with the result. Jon Bansen of Double J Jerseys, Inc., in Oregon's Willamette Valley, began planting SucraSeed four years ago. Today about 10% of his 300 acres are planted in high-sugar ryegrass.

Bansen's goal was to have his cows eat more grass and less grain. He reasoned that the increased carbohydrate in the high-sugar ryegrass would feed the cows' gut bacteria and increase digestion efficiency.

Bansen has found that, without adequate water and fertilizer,the high-sugar ryegrass doesn't increase milk production over other varieties.

“But, treated well, it does the job,” Bansen says. “It's working really well for us. Our cows are doing fine on less grain, in part because of the high-sugar grass.”

For more info, visit www.sucraseed.com or call 503-566-9900.